The Arkansas Entrepreneurial Startup Desert

The Arkansas Entrepreneurial Startup Desert

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I really shouldn’t call Arkansas an entrepreneurial desert – though it did get you to read this.

Arkansas is, after all, the home of Walmart, arguably the world’s most successful family business in the history of mankind. And, it is home to 18 publicly traded companies, in a state with only two million souls.

Arkansas is also a state with a long and storied entrepreneurial history, that seems to have forgotten what it is that entrepreneurs actually need to succeed. Namely: what do neophyte entrepreneurs actually need to know in order to run a going concern?

What we do have is a burgeoning and growing ecosystem, giving a great deal of lip service to supporting entrepreneurs: new technology centers, innovation hubs, and startup funds are announced weekly. For every new startup pitch competition created, a dozen other pitch competitions already exist. Enough, already.

We have created a wobbly ecosystem designed to launch a thousand Powerpoint decks, and game gone-in-sixty-second contests for bragging rights and cash; a startup food chain, with lots of empty calories, but with little to no nutritional value.

And as a result – we are failing to launch healthy and sustainable new companies.

How do we fix this?

Well, we don’t need another startup fund. And we sure as hell don’t need another pitch competition.

We need businesses, and business people, who know how to keep enterprises between the ditches, making profits, paying salaries, giving back to their communities, and ultimately, fulfilling dreams.

People willing to sweat, and teach, the details of what businesses actually do.

Details like: Should my business be a C Corporation, an S Corporation, or an LLC? Should I incorporate as a native corporation, or as a foreign corporation? Should I operate on an accrual basis, or a cash basis? Will we be subject to state sales taxes? Are we charging (at all / enough) for our services in order to cover our run rate? What are the statutory reporting requirements for my type of business?

Details as seemingly obvious as: How do I close a sale?

These details aren’t simply questions to be answered after you “growth hack” an audience, or announce your break-out app at South By. They are foundational issues vital to the success of any – and everyBusiness with a capital B. The Arkansas Venture Center does a great job of dealing with such issues, through their Pre-Flight course, and through their network of mentors and business advisors.

If you find yourself in a “startup” group, and you’re the only one in the group who has ever created a business charter or filed a 941 form, congratulations – you’re the de facto subject matter expert.

And it’s well past time that those of us who have this knowledge continue to allow the narrative of the emerging Arkansas startup ecosystem to be controlled by entities interested solely in selling shovels to the miners, rather than teaching the basics of actually digging for gold.

There are solid business mentors around. And, there are plenty of people – accountants, lawyers, educators, and, dare I say it, “lifestyle” business owners – that actually know how to take in more money than you spend.

Seek them out. Use them. Invite them into the startup conversation.

For, if you want to successfully cross the entrepreneurial desert, you’ll need guides who have been there before, crossed it, and lived to tell the tale.

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Pigeonholing

Pigeonholing

Ducking Pigeonholing

This was originally posted in 2008, therefore many personal references mentioned here are dated; however, this topic has been on my mind a great deal recently, and so I am reposting on a cold wintry Arkansas morning. I do hope that you’ll find at least a few good take-aways from my thoughts of seven years ago (!!!). – Ed.

Pigeonholing is, according to Wikipedia, a term used to describe processes that attempt to classify disparate entities into a small number of categories (usually, mutually exclusive ones).

It is almost always pejorative in the sense that the pigeonhole-ee – the person or object being pigeonholed – is relegated to a tightly restricted role or position. Most people would say that they hate being pigeonholed, because the act of pigeonholing by definition is to limit for ease of classification – at the expense of getting the entire picture.

The most recognizable form of pigeonholing is typecasting in the movies. Some actors have roles that are so tightly identified with them that they can never find acting work doing anything else; William Shatner as James T. Kirk, Jonathan Frid as Barnabas Collins, and Bela Lugosi as Dracula (note to readers: this phenomena is definitely not limited to vampire roles – Ed).

But pigeonholing is a danger that “high performers” in business are prone to as well. Dan Bricklin will forever be known as the Visicalc Guy, Mitch Kapor will always be the Lotus 1-2-3 guy, Ed Esber will always be known as the Ashton-Tate guy who was at the helm during the Dbase IV tanking. Even though all of these guys have been successful afterwards, they are cast into a certain world view because of a need to simplify the world by putting people into neat little compartments.

Some business people have definitely broken the pigeonholing cycle.

Had Steve Jobs fallen off the map following the failure of the NeXT , he more or less would have been pegged as simply being lucky with his first stint at Apple Computer . Instead, he has gone on to be one of the most successful second acts in personal computing history.

I would suggest that Marc Andreesen is looking for his pigeonhole-escaping second act, though he has had quite a few successes following his days at Netscape. (2015 Ed – and has found it as a leading VC).

But even for the “little guy” pigeonholing is a constant danger to be guarded against.

For example, you do an outstanding job on a project, and all of a sudden you’re the SME (subject matter expert) on that particular project – forever. Unless it’s being project manager on a deep space probe or being Chairman of the Fed, or being Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, this is probably not what you had in mind.

Stick around long enough, and one gathers quite a few skills and life experiences that don’t fit on a one page resume or condense down to a single 140 character tweet.

I would hate to think that my professional life can be condensed down to a five minute elevator pitch, or even shorter escalator pitch. Yet I recognize the need to help others get to know what I can do for them in as short a period of time as possible. The key question is – how to summarize the complexity and richness that you have to offer in the ADD business world that we exist in?

From my perspective, you have to have several answers at the ready, tailored to the audience at hand.

“I’m a developer.” “I’m a Marketer.” “I’m a Salesman.”

But beyond that, you have to figure out how to pull out those layers of complexity in your career that make up who you are today. It’s a tough nut to crack.

From my personal history, I have done the following:

  • Been the IT director at a startup transaction processing company in Transportation
  • Written multitasking kernels for point-of-sales systems
  • Written NetBUI networking stacks
  • Written SCSI controllers
  • Taught Advanced Microcomputer Concepts at the University Level
  • Been the Director of a Business Unit for a Software Company
  • Written Engineering Software for the Largest Private Banking WAN in North America
  • Written software responsible for engineering 100,000 VoIP phones
  • Have been the President of a Software Consultancy for the past dozen years (circa 2008)
  • 2015 Ed – Served as the CIO of a leading Liberal Arts College

Among all of these things, most people know me professionally for only a handful of these – usually, only one or two, tops. Yet they constitute the fabric of who I am as a professional.

My daily challenge developing business for my corporate brand, and increasingly my personal brand, is simplifying my pitch while losing as little detail as possible in the experiences that have made me what I am.

I’m still a work in progress.

Just realize that if you limit me to only five minutes to describe myself, the really good stuff is probably outside the time limit allowed.

Small Biz 101: 3 Things

Small Biz 101: 3 Things

A few chestnuts I’ve learned along the way:

  • Know what your service / product / time is worth. Corollary: Don’t give your time away. When you’re in the “agency life” or working for a small consultancy, you will invariably be approached to work on spec, work for “sweat equity”, or work at a huge discount for the promise of better pay on “the next project.” These offers never pan out. Know what your service or time is worth, and engage only at those rates. Your time, resources, and patience are finite – and these “clients” will only waste all of these.
  • Never sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement. Corollary: Never sign a Non-Compete Agreement. To quote a famous proverb “there is nothing new under the sun.” Non-disclosure agreements between clients and contractors on limited engagements pretend you don’t have experience you didn’t attain but through a client engagement, are nearly impossible to police, and start from a premise of distrust and suspicion. And besides: ninety-nine times out of one hundred, the “secrets” being protected have been done many times before, and in effect, are unprotectable anyway. As far as non-compete agreements go, the only reason to sign on is that you have been compensated – greatly – to do so. The fact remains: there’s generally only downside for you to ever sign an NDA or a NCA. I was recently asked to sign a two year non-disclosure, transfer of invention, non-compete agreement – for a $2,000 contract engagement. Needless to say, this was a no brainer to walk away from. It’s not to say clients won’t ask. You should never put yourself in a position to have to explain – or defend – your prior experience, art, or inventions. Don’t sell your birthright for a bowl of lentils.

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    Image Credit: http://www.premiumbeat.com/blog/passion-projects/
  • Don’t be afraid to fire a client. Corollary: Don’t be afraid to say no. We’ve all heard that the worst mistakes in life happen when you said “yes”, when you should have said “no.” Sometimes, this moment of clarity doesn’t occur until you’re far down the road on an engagement, and it’s too late to make an easy course correction. Simply stated – not all business is good business, and some customers are more trouble than they’re worth. If a customer or relationship is in opposition to the well being of your business or your employees, then it is time to cut the relationship or engagement short as soon as you can ethically and responsibly do so. You should always be honest with the customer as to why you’re doing what you’re doing. Ultimately, your main responsibility is to yourself, your employees, and to your business. The best advice is to say “no” when your intuition tells you that that high-maintenance (though high paying / high profile) contract you’re about to bag may not be all it’s touted to be.

Take a look at your business charter – I bet it says that your business is for-profit. That fact alone should be the primary guiding principle behind all of your decision making.

Remember: your business making a profit isn’t dirty. It’s your business’s raison d’être.

And if it’s not, you’re not running a business – you’re running a hobby.

CxOs – Put the Emphasis on the “C”, not the “x.”

CxOs – Put the Emphasis on the “C”, not the “x.”

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A long standing belief I have held is that any senior exec who holds a CxO title, should have (or be on their way to developing) the capabilities needed to helm the enterprises they serve.

Each and every one of them.

Else – why have them be a chief at all?

Organizations all have a varied stratigraphy as to how and why they are structured the ways that they are. Chances are, yours has a smallish leadership group of folks with a C in front of their names.

Chief Executive Officer. Chief Financial Officer. Chief Marketing Officer. Chief Information Officer. Chief Information Security Officer. Chief Digital Officer. Chief Operating Officer.

All of these “chiefs” are responsible for a major area of your enterprise’s governance structure. But only a small subset of these leaders ever advance beyond their limited spans of control, to helm their company as Chief Executive Officer. Lots of CMOs, COOs, and CFOs find their way to the CEO slot; vanishingly few from the ranks of CIO, CISO, or CDO wind up inhabiting the top corner office.

In part, this is because not every chief has a business line under their control, and therefore, doesn’t get the chance to demonstrate their mastery of the business they serve.

Which is unfortunate.

But also, a major opportunity to gain a significant competitive advantage over other enterprises in your market.

The smarter large companies you see not only have segmented areas of responsibility manned by some CxO – they also give them some accountable business unit as well.

This is business succession by doing.

And it is something we all should be doing.

If you find CxOs in your organization that don’t have the attributes or talents to run the whole shebang, you should do one of two things:

  1. Train them, or
  2. Fire them.

Don’t waste your time worrying about whether someone should be a COO or a CIO or a CMO or a CDO.

Worry about whether that person could potentially be a CEO, first. The rest will take care of itself.

You Have to Show Up

You Have to Show Up

I had a friend some twenty years ago – I’ll call him Bill – who opened a small music store in Nashville, on Second Avenue (that was just becoming a revitalized tourist area at the time).

What should have been a glowing success (a music store, in the heart of Music City, USA) was instead a complete failure.

Within a year, he was out of business.

How did this happen?

Well, his business plan had two fatal flaws.

  1. He sold only music he liked, and
  2. He didn’t keep regular, predictable business hours.

It sounds simple enough, but simply, consistently, being available, every day, can make a tremendous difference between achieving great success in your business… or abysmally failing.

And not listening – or even pretending to listen when you do appear – just adds insult to injury.

If you’re not consistently present and engaged in your daily affairs, there is absolutely no way you can be affective with the constituencies that you’re trying to service.

Worse still, you signal that you don’t value the time, talents, and patronage of the people you need to succeed.

Show the people you want to influence that you do value them by showing up – on time, every time.

Dear G-d. Not Another Webinar.

Dear G-d. Not Another Webinar.

I am prone to stating a strong dislike… well, hate, actually  – of webinars.

Why?

Because 99.9% of them are colossal wastes of time.

Most aren’t well researched. Most are (or look like) they are thrown together at the last minute. And almost all of them have abysmal audio / video / content. I can’t tell you the last time I sat through a webinar for any more than a handful of minutes without bailing.

One would think that after a while people would catch on.

And yet, I can count on getting at least five or more come-ons – daily – for a webinar of some ilk.

I beg you all – in the name of everything that is holy – if you have an insane itch to host a webinar, resist doing so with all your might.

However… if you must persist in this madness, please do the following:

  1. Don’t rehash your company’s history. Nobody cares but you and your employer. Almost every webinar starts off with 10 or 15 minutes of this dreck. Just leave it out. Seriously.
  2. Get to the point. Fast. Your time is valuable. And so is the poor schmuck’s who just sat through 5 slides of you describing the first 10 years of your company’s existence and why they switched from making wodgets to widgets. Respect your audience’s time as if it were golden. Because it is.
  3. Don’t read your slide deck, word for word. If you’re reading me your Keynote / Powerpoint deck, all I’m getting is a less interesting blog post that I could have read on your site without scheduling an appointment to have an audio version (voiced by Monotone Man ®) of the same. It adds nothing. And insults everyone’s intelligence.
  4. For G-d’s sake, buy a good microphone. If I’m sitting there listening to the Teacher from Peanuts (wah wah, wah wah wah wah, wah wah wah), then I’m not focused on your pitch, your message, or your content. Meanwhile, I’m thinking “there goes another 30 minutes of my life that I’ll never get back.”
  5. If you are delivering video as part of your presentation, make sure that you are in focus, in the frame, and are being shot in front of a background that isn’t competing for your attention. While I’m on the subject, there are plenty of unemployed actors, community theatre players, and voice over professionals. Use them, because odds are (in the Arkansas vernacular) they ain’t you.
  6. And finally, have something to say that is interesting. Don’t tease me with a follow on premium up sell. Deliver the goods. Make it worth my time.

In summary, Quality Counts.

Quality Content. Quality Production. Quality Delivery.

If you’re not going to go to the trouble, why should your audience?

Choose Your Partners Carefully

Choose Your Partners Carefully

I normally shy away from partnerships.

Mainly because it involves sharing not only the successes of your partner, but also the inevitable failures – failures to execute, produce, live up to expectations – beyond your span of control.

I have had successful partnerships – but a lot more unsuccessful ones.

Sometimes the risks outweigh the benefits – and sometimes you have no choice but to create a partnership (scarcity of resources, timeliness to market, access to information).

And sometimes – sometimes it just works to everyone’s benefit.

So, I’ve learned never to say never.

But I always go into a partnership hoping for the best but expecting the worst.

Or at least, expecting to be disappointed.

Anyone else?